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Instead of a to-do list, Toronto-based productivity consultant Ann Gomez says you need a MAP – a Master Action Plan to guide your day.

It helps, in particular, to overcome a prime barrier to effectiveness: Too many priorities. We need to identify our core priorities and effectively manage all the other demands on our time that keep us from those priorities. Individually and collectively, we are struggling because, as she bluntly puts it, “prioritization is broken.”

She says you can effectively manage as many as three core priorities in your professional life and up to three in your personal life. Try for more, and you will trip yourself up. When something new and important comes up, if you want to make it a core priority – even a project from your boss requiring a week’s effort – swap it with one existing priority until you have completed the new item.

But you can’t concentrate solely on core priorities. Other things intrude. You also have, for example, supporting tasks that you can’t perpetually ignore - operational and administrative duties required for you to do your work. Stop filling out your expense reports and you may find yourself in a financial hole and have the accounting department or your boss breathing down your neck.

You also have hot new ideas that you want to make a priority. But if you already have three core priorities, those new ideas must be placed in the future-priority category for now. “Ironically, the fastest way to get to your future priorities is to spend absolutely no time on them right now,” she writes in Workday Warrior. “Instead, fast-track your current core priorities. Get them done.” Your core priorities are not forever priorities, she adds.

The final category is “distractions”: the remaining work – fringe tasks - that doesn’t fit into those other categories. She cites as examples, asking your team to copy you on every e-mail, or reclaiming work you delegated to somebody else as a core priority for them. And yes, distractions include online pop-up reminders, checking for new e-mail every few minutes, and browsing social media. The best way to handle these, she suggests, is to push them on to the backburner by spending your time on the more important categories.

Your MAP helps you to use your time effectively by listing items on it, demarcated by those four categories – current priorities, supporting tasks, future priorities, and distractions. It’s a more efficient way of organizing than leaving it haphazardly to a to-do list, your calendar, pop-up reminders, and Post-It Notes on your computer. “Your MAP tracks your tasks, deadlines, commitments and goals. But it goes so much further; it assists you in organizing and prioritizing your work,” she says.

You need some system for ranking everything on it. The hierarchy of categories helps. Core priorities come before future priorities. But she says of all the ranking metrics you could devise for each item, deadlines is the best. If there is no deadline, give yourself one. Deadlines drive productivity.

You also need to build in structure and routines to make this smooth. She notes that time to focus on our core priorities “doesn’t magically appear. We can’t find time, but we can protect time. Structure helps us to fortify boundaries around our core priorities.”

That structure won’t come if you seek total flexibility to get through each day. Routines matter. A good one to start with: Pay yourself first. Set up time at the start of every day to work on your core priorities.

With that must come a determined effort to simplify your life. That means scaling back by trimming your list of activities and eliminating non-essential steps in them; streamline by automating recurring tasks and standardizing processes; and seek help by delegating more often and developing your team.

MAP it out.

Quick hits

  • Say “no” twice as much as you do now. Deb Liu, chief executive officer of genealogical services provider, believes it can save you 10 hours month. Another tip: A fast “no” is better than a half-hearted “yes.”
  • If an organization approaches you for a job, that suggests they are looking for your skill set. To see if the organization might be a good fit, identify your assumptions about the role before the initial interview. Caroline Raj, a senior director at ServiceNow, recommends asking: “What are the three things that I can do to meet your expectations, and what are three things I can do to delight you?”
  • Two studies found that HR professionals offered women better salaries when reminded of their role in reducing the gender gap.
  • Good choices create opportunities. Good habits make the most of them, notes Atomic Habits author James Clear.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.